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The Perils of Sugar

by Natasha Turner, ND

Last Halloween, I returned home from work to find my husband handing out candy to the trick or treaters. In between the doorbell sounding, I took a peek to see which treats the little goblins, ghosts and vampires were going to enjoy — the usual mini chocolate bars and chewy, chocolate, roll candy in the familiar orange, brown and white wrapper. And then I thought, what is this chewy candy anyway? I read the ingredient listing and was immediately consumed with guilt so much so that I wanted to chase after the kids, empty their treat bags and take the candy rolls back. With the chewy candy’s two main ingredients being hydrogenated fat (aka trans-fatty acids) and sugar - I realized we were essentially poisoning our neighbor’s kids!

By now, most of us are aware of the dangers of trans fats as they are directly linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease and don’t allow for any safe level of intake. But, what about sugar? Considering the fact that the typical adult consumes 15 to 20 teaspoons a day, we definitely have a lot to learn.

The Low Down on Sugar
Sugar comes in many forms including white sugar (sucrose, aka  table sugar), brown sugar, cane sugar, sugar in the raw, high fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, candies, pop, jams, ketchup, baked goods, juice, several packaged foods and many low-fat products for added taste.  Refined flour, chips, pretzels, muffins, white rice and pasta also end up as sugar in our body. Although sugars are safest in their natural, unprocessed forms such as maple syrup, honey or sugar in the raw – all forms of sugar possess similar health risks.

Energy Highs and Lows
When we consume foods high in sugar (glucose), the glucose enters the bloodstream, quickly causing blood sugars to rise. The pancreas responds by secreting insulin which then causes a surge of sugars to enter the cells to either be used as energy or stored as fat for later use. Blood sugars then fall to normal or possibly just below normal levels. While this is happening, we experience a “sugar rush” of hyperactivity (all too commonly seen in kids) only to be followed by the “crash” - fatigue, drowsiness and poor concentration. Naturally, as blood sugars fall, the body works to maintain balance by causing a craving – most likely for more sugar – and the whole process starts all over again.

Compromised Immunity
Studies dating back to 1997 and even earlier, back to 1973 show white blood cell counts are suppressed after sugar consumption. White blood cells are the body’s first line of defense against an invading virus or bacteria, so this leaves us susceptible to illness, especially with regular consumption of sugar. Forget snacking on jelly beans or licorice at your desk. Most often, people who do this are the patients I see coming in with shingles, cold sores or chronic colds and the flu – consistent with a compromised immune system. 

Sugar's Long-Term Effects Aren’t Sweet
Most foods containing sugar, especially refined white sugar, have very little nutritional value and are often referred to as “empty” calories. Beyond this, insulin is also secreted in proportion to the amount of sugar consumed. Since insulin is the hormone that instructs the body to store energy as fat, it’s a nemesis if it becomes too high. Repeatedly eating sugar throughout the day eventually leads to chronically high insulin and ultimately to insulin resistance. Let me explain. Imagine insulin as a truck that carries sugar into cells and enters the cell upon arrival by using the garage door opener. Think of insulin resistance as the insulin truck arriving at the cell, but the garage door opener won’t work until six insulin trucks are waiting, rather than just one. Soon, we will have a traffic jam of insulin trucks throughout the body, or chronically high insulin. At this juncture, weight loss becomes very difficult and there is often an increase in blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides, abdominal fat, breast and prostate cancer risk and more.

You May be Sweet, but Wrinkled!
Through a process called glycation, described as abnormal attachment of sugar molecules to cells in the body, aging is accelerated. When this occurs, tissue elasticity reduces to cause skin sagging, arterial stiffness and poor organ function. Sugar also causes the brain, nervous system and eyes to age.  Finally, don’t forget that sugar is terrible for your healthy mouth and smile. Studies clearly show it can lead to tooth decay and gum disease.

 


 

Are Artificial Sweeteners Better?
Food additives and artificial sweeteners are subject to rigorous controls under the Food and Drugs Act and Regulations. Currently, under the Act, several artificial sweeteners have been deemed safe for use by adults, children and pregnant women. These include aspartame (Nutrasweet or Equal), acesulfame-potassium (Sweet One), sucralose (Splenda) and sugar alcohols such as sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol and xylitol.

If Health Canada says the sweeteners are fine and we know sugar is bad for us, should we eat these sweet alternatives? Think again …

Saccharin
According to the Health Canada website, Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener developed, is currently not permitted to be added to foods due to results of studies completed in the 1970s that found it may be related to bladder cancer. But, it may appear as a table-top sweetener with point of sale warnings and labeling restrictions. In comparison to other artificial sweeteners, it’s not recommended for pregnant women. 

Get Over Aspartame and Acesfulame-Potassium
When aspartame is broken down in the body, methanol is produced. Methanol is a type of alcohol which we know is neurotoxic and is suggested to be hundreds of times more potent than alcoholic beverages. Neurological disease and related symptoms can arise from consumption of aspartame including headaches, muscle spasms, dizziness, twitching, memory loss, migraines and even seizures. Surprisingly, aspartame has been found in high concentrations in patients with brain tumors. Aspartame is contraindicated for individuals suffering from phenylketonuria, a disease which prevents the proper metabolism of the amino acid phenylalanine. I also believe it is especially important to avoid aspartame during pregnancy because of its potential negative effects on the baby’s developing brain and nervous system.

Acesfulame-potassium was approved for use after the FDA reviewed more than 100 safety studies, including those to assess cancer risk. However, concerns around its safety exist as criticism has been raised against the reviewed studies and it has been suggested that it certainly does cause a higher incidence of cancer in animals.

Sucralose and Sugar Alcohols (Xylitol, Mannitol, etc.)
To date, these sweeteners, the newest to appear on the market, have good safety records and little report of adverse side effects, although eating too much sugar alcohol can cause gastro-intestinal upset and laxative effects. Mannitol and sorbitol are promoted for use in diabetics because they do not appear to cause significant changes in blood sugar levels. However, other sources report increased cravings, caloric intake, weight gain and insulin levels with higher amounts of these sweeteners in the diet. One benefit of sugar alcohols is less tooth decay because they are resistant to breakdown by the bacteria in our mouths. This is especially true for xylitol which can prevent tooth decay.

Your Best Sweetener Options
Date paste, raisins, honey, apple sauce and stevia are excellent natural sweeteners. Stevia is available at most health food stores in liquid or powder form that can be easily added to drinks and foods. It’s very sweet so you only need a touch. Spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, or cocoa can also add flavor and sweetness to recipes. 

And, going back to those Halloween treats, unfortunately, there is little selection of healthy treats in safely sealed packages. You could consider giving some non-food treats such as stickers, balloons, crayons, colored chalk, whistles and baseball cards or simply accept that it’s inevitable that most kids are going to have sugar at Halloween. You can, however, minimize negative health effects by selecting treats free of harmful hydrogenated fats and artificial sweeteners. When it comes to your own children, follow their sugar “binge” with one or two chewable vitamin Cs daily (a sweet treat on its own) and supplements of acidophilus. This will prevent suppressed immunity caused by the sugar intake.  It’s a good idea to do this for the winter anyway!
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